Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Nussbaum on the Moral Bright Side of Literature

In Poetic Justice, her classic defense of the moral value of the "literary imagination", Martha Nussbaum writes about the children's song "Twinkle, twinkle little star" that:
the fact is that the nursery song itself, like other such songs, nourishes the ascription of humanity, and the prospect of friendship, rather than paranoid sentiments of being persecuted by a hateful being in the sky. It tells the child to regard the star as "like a diamond," not like a missile of destruction, and also not like a machine good only for production and consumption. In this sense, the birth of fancy is non-neutral and does, as Dickens indicates, nourish a generous construction of the seen (p. 39).
Nussbaum also argues that the literary imagination favors the oppressed over the aristocracy:
Whitman calls his poet-judge an "equalizer." What does he mean? Why should the literary imagination be any more connected with equality than with inequality, or with democratic rather than aristocratic ideals?... When we read [the Dickens novel] Hard Times as sympathetic participants, our attention has a special focus. Since the sufferings and anxieties of the characters are among the central bonds between reader and work, our attention is drawn in particular to those characters who suffer and fear. Characters who are not facing any adversity simply do not hook us in as readers (p. 90).
Does listening to nursery rhymes and reading literature cultivate generous and sympathetic friendship, across class and ethic divides, as Nussbaum seems to think it does? Maybe so! But the evidence isn't really in yet. Nursery rhymes can also be dark and unsympathetic -- "Rock-a-Bye Baby", "Jack and Jill" -- and I must say that it seems to me that aristocrats are over-represented in literature, the more common targets of our sympathies, than are the poor. We sympathize with Odysseus, with Hamlet, with the brave knight, with the wealthy characters in Eliot, James, and Fitzgerald, and we tend to overlook the servants around them, except in works intentionally written (as Hard Times was) to turn our eyes toward the working class. True, if these characters had no adversities, they wouldn't engage us; but Hamlet suffers adversity enough to capture sympathy despite ample wealth.

Children's literature (especially pre-Disney) mocks and chuckles and laughs callously at suffering as much as it expresses the ideals of wonder and friendship. Children's literature represents the full moral range of human impulses, for good and bad; it would be surprising if that were not so. The same with movies, novels, television, every medium. And "fancy" -- that is, the metaphorical imagination (p. 38) -- can be quite dark and paranoid (especially at night), and sadistic, and sexual, and vengeful, and narcissistic. Fancy is as morally mixed as those who do the fancying.

One might even argue, contra Nussbaum, that there is an aristocratic impulse in literature, a default tendency to present as its focal figures people of great social power, since the socially powerful are typically the ones who do the most exciting things on which the future of their worlds depends. The literary eye is drawn to Lincoln and Caesar and their equivalents, more than to the ordinary farmer who never leaves his land. It takes an egalitarian effort to excite the reader equally about the non-great. And although we are sympathetic with focal figures, the death of non-focal figures (e.g., foes in battle) might tend to excite less sympathy in literature than in real life.

Nussbaum has cherry picked her sample. She might be right that, on balance, we are morally improved by a broad consumption of literature. (Or at least by "good" literature? But let's be careful about what we build into "good" here, lest we argue in a circle.) But if so, I don't think the case can be made on the grounds that literature tends, overall, to be anti-aristocratic and broadly sympathetic. Nor do I think there is much direct empirical evidence on this question, such as longitudinal studies comparing the moral behavior and attitudes those extensively exposed to literature to those not so exposed. (Impressionistically, I'd say literature professors don't seem much morally better, for all their exposure, than others of similar education and social background with less exposure; but the study has never been done.)

It's an interesting and important issue, what are the moral effects of reading literature -- but in my mind, wide open.

[Image source]


  1. Harold Bloom said literature wasn't improving, but it represented the proper use of solitude.

    It's a form of communication, and in general I think communication is a good thing. But if it displaces other forms of communication, and if it carries negative messages, then I can see that it could be bad.

    I wonder if Confucians have written much about literature? It seems possible to me that they would be against it because it cuts through the concentric circles of relationships around each person: draws the reader into a psychological/emotional relationship with either an author or fictional characters who are outside the reader's proper circle of moral concern.

    I've certainly seen western defences of literature along those lines: that literature helps you learn empathy for those beyond your immediate social circle.

    Maybe one could also defend it as a type of freedom. Literature gives a person entire new realms to be free in, so insofar as freedom is a good, literature is a good.

    Or I wonder if it could be the apotheosis of language? Animals make immediate signs; the Piraha are supposed to have an articulated language which deals only with the immediate experience; spoken languages like English can describe almost anything, immediate or distant; but it seems to take literature to transport the reader entirely away from the immediate, into another world.

  2. Good post and, to me at least, obviously right. A great deal of classical literature, including a great deal of Shakespeare, endorses a hierarchical picture of society, in which the lower orders ought to defer to their betters and act improperly if they don't (see e.g. King Lear). And Dickens is hardly an unambiguous example for Nussbaum. As Orwell pointed out in a wonderful essay, though Dickens portrayed the plight of the poor sympathetically, his proposed solution to their problems was moral reform of the rich, as in the case of Scrooge, who were, once morally improved, to go around patting children on the head, handing out bonbons, etc. In the politics of his day he opposed trade unions and legal limitations on the length of the working day, and there certainly aren't any favourably portrayed union organizers in his novels.

  3. interestingly, quite a lot of Soviet children's books and cartoons were made with the intention of teaching good morals. Many of them are very sweet and nice. Here's my favorite:


    But, it's fairly doubtful how successful they were in teaching the desired values.

  4. Hi Eric,

    Nice question to raise. Random thoughts.

    First, I thought I would share Derek Baker's claim, PEA soup last week, that reading novels for instrumental reasons is barbaric.

    Second, there are clearly novels that make people worse. Calling Rand? And some bad people can be inspired by reading novels of evil people.

    Third, does Nussbaum discuss critical theory debates about what kinds of novels and poetry has a progressive effect? I took a whole undergrad class on this in which we read Lukacs and Adorno debates and the relevant literature (roughly Lukacs likes Balzac/Dickens/Realism and Adorno likes Joyce/Kafka/Modernism).

    Last, did you see this NYtimes report on the empirical stuff?


  5. she's wrong, the skills used in reading are not the same skills required for interacting with people, always surprised anyone who has sat thru a faculty meeting in the humanities still holds such beliefs but so it goes with narcissism/cog-biases...

  6. Surely Nussbaum's claim was never that reading just any literature is morally improving? Some particular novels - The Golden Bowl, for example - provide moral education by developing our sensitivities to others and to the details of situations. In Nussbaum's telling, these novels are irreplaceably works of moral philosophy as well as of moral education. That may be wrong, but it isn't shown to be wrong by pointing out that some other works of literature have bad effects on their readers. Nussbaum says that herself, and references Wayne Booth's The Company We Keep for examples.

  7. Great post, Eric. I think Nussbaum makes a more general case that literature breeds empathy, and she is probably right on that. But does that empathy produce egalitarianism? That seems less likely.

    It's worth noting here the change in emphasis in Nussbaum's more recent thought. The 20th-century Nussbaum had a great emphasis on improving our emotions in general, drawing her inspiration from Aristotle and tragedy. The 21st-century Nussbaum is much more about justice in an orthodox Rawlsian sense. I once asked her a question about the relation between compassion and justice and she said, basically, that compassion was an insufficient basis for political action because it didn't do enough to motivate justice.

  8. How do you test whether a text makes you more 'ethical'. Is it measured by what actions the control group (never shown the text) takes when confronted with a staged situation Vs what actions the exposed group takes?

    But what actions? Aren't they just the scientists own prefered idea of 'ethical' actions?

    Anyway, it reminds me of the research done where a subject was prepped to give a speach on the good samaritan but it's rigged so they are made a few minutes late. In getting to where the speach is to be made, they come across someone in distress on the path.

    Turns out most hurried on by, so as to go give their speach on being a good samaritan.

  9. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, folks! Prioritizing family for the holidays, but I will read and reply in the new year!

  10. There are a few studies indicating that reading fiction makes people more capable of empathizing, though there's still a gap between that and claiming literature makse us better or more moral:




  11. Chinaphil: Interesting thoughts! Not much on literature in the ancient Confucian tradition -- maybe there's more after the ancient period, but that's not my specialty. Nothing leaps to mind right away. I like the idea that it's a kind of freedom and apotheosis of language -- valuable for its own sake in those ways!

  12. Tom: Yes. Nussbaum does acknowledge and regret this aspect of Dickens in Poetic Justice. It's a fair criticism of Dickens in particular -- but maybe consonant with Nussbaum's overall view about the moral effects of reading literature.

  13. Matt: Thanks for the link -- looks interesting! Cued up now.

  14. Anon / dmf: I do think that humanities faculty behavior is empirical evidence that raises some challenges for Nussbaum's thesis. Not that, in my experience, it's *particularly* bad -- just that it seems to display the regular human range of vice, virtue, insight, and foolishness.

  15. Brad:
    1: Funny. I'll check it out.
    2: Yes, probably true. To be charitable to Nussbaum, I think her claim is about tendencies on average, rather than a universal claim.
    3: She does not discuss that -- but it sounds like maybe I should take a look at those debates. Suggestions welcome!
    4: Yes, thanks for the link! One of the authors actually presented this material at UCR last year and I had a chance to chat with him about it a bit. In my view, this is one of those studies that is over-hyped because there's a market for its conclusion. It's an interesting start, though.

  16. Sam: Yes, I agree with that. I interpret her claim as only about general trends (and maybe only restricted to "good" literature), rather than as a universal claim.

  17. Amod: Interesting thought about the difference between 20th and 21st Nussbaum. Do you know if she sees this as a change in her views, so that she would now reject some of what she earlier said on these topics?

  18. Callan: I'm hard at work on the moral-o-meter -- all I need is a giant grant! Yes, of course that's an important and difficult question. I prefer to think it's not hopeless, despite its difficulty. In my research on ethics professors, I try to take a shotgun approach, using lots of different types of measures.

  19. James: Thanks for those links! I was aware of some of them before, but not all. I appreciate it.

  20. until the studies include followups (independent observations not self-reports) of people/subjects actually interacting with others in their daily lives than they are just noise...

  21. Eric, re your comment to me: I'm pretty sure she does, at least to some extent. In the conversation I had with her, she said "I don't think one should do moral philosophy. I think it's arrogant. Except with one's children, and perhaps with one's students, who are like one's children." I was a little stunned to hear that, but it does fit with a lot of the Rawlsian things she's said in recent years, and it sure seems like a rebuke of her earlier work (work I like better, myself).

  22. Just semi off topic - isn't that album cover depicting someone having shot themselves in the mouth?

  23. No, just smoking. I think she's threatening others not contemplating suicide.

  24. I'm glad I'm wrong on that interpretation, then! :)

  25. In Poetic Justice, her classic defense of the moral value of the "literary imagination", Martha Nussbaum writes about the children's song ... nwohnzimmertisch.blogspot.de